Analysis |

The Intricate Web of Relations That Is Iran's Leadership

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad despise one another; senior officials and officers report directly to the supreme leader while decisions are made behind the president's back.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus, has an eye-opening story in his chain of command in Iran. In 2008, when he led the U.S. forces in Iraq, at the height of the battle against the Shi'ite separatist forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, a senior Iraqi official handed him a cell phone. "General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan," an SMS on the screen read. "Iran's ambassador to Baghdad is a member of the Quds Force, his replacement will be a member of the Quds Force as well."

The author of the SMS, General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' “Quds” (Jerusalem) Force of the Islamic Revolution, doesn't only put enemies of the state in their place. About two weeks ago he was quoted on the Iranian website Meli Mazhabi scolding Syrian President Bashar Assad for not heeding to his advice.

"We tell him to deploy police forces throughout the streets but he doesn't send soldiers," said Suleimani.

This is the same Suleimani before whom the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki bows his head when the two meet. He was involved in the attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, operated the forces in Afghanistan and Caucasus, and primarily, he is someone with close ties to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, partly because the supreme leader is his direct boss and partly because the two are friends.

The Quds Force was established during the Iran-Iraq War as an elite unit that supported the Kurds in the war against Saddam Hussein. Later on, it turned into a training unit for forces outside the state, like Hezbollah, to carry out terrorist attacks against opponents of the regime throughout the world.

Suleimani does not speak to the Iranian media very often; he leaves that job for the politicians, whom he does not hold in high esteem. Despite his friendly relationship with Khamenei, he is not a great fan of the regime's political structure, whereby the supreme religious leader is also the head of the state's political machine. This is not only Suleimani's personal worldview.

Interviews and investigations into Iranians living abroad and past diplomats that have been published in the West reveal that the Iranian regime, designed by Khomeini, which places the nation's religious leader at the top of its political mechanism, is a matter of internal polemics. Senior clerics oppose this system, preferring to separate religion from direct involvement in politics and the military. Suleimani, 55, is not a cleric and did not receive a religious education. In his youth he was a simple construction worker who helped support his poor family. Later, he was a technician at the Kerman municipal water department. There is no evidence he participated in the protests against the Shah.

But Suleimani joined the "right" forces when he participated in the Iran-Iraq War as a volunteer for the Kerman branch of the Army of the Revolutionary Guards. At the time, he received military training for only six weeks, but today he is considered the most powerful person in the Revolutionary Guard, even more powerful than its chief commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari.

Dynamics within the Revolutionary Guard pyramid are apparently similar to those of any senior military headquarters. Moshe Ya’alon’s comment that he wore high boots in order to protect him from the “snakes in the General Staff” could have easily described the goings on in the Revolutionary Guard. After Mohammad Khatami ascended to power in 1997, he fired Mohsen Rezaei, ending his 16-year-service, replacing him with Yahya Rahim Safavi. In response to this move, 31 senior Revolutionary Guard officers, Suleimani among them, drafted a letter to the president protesting Rezaei’s dismissal. Despite this fact, it was Safavi that appointed Suleimani to replace Ahmad Vahidi and command the Quds Force in the end of the 1990’s. Vahidi now serves as Defense Minister. Vahidi was involved in the 1980’s Iran-Contra affair and has been issued an injunction for his involvement in the Buenos Aires bombing.

This list of appointments significantly influences the network of relations between the Revolutionary Guard officers and the political system. It is a well-planned system built on trust and rivalries – both hierarchical and horizontal – which joins together the four arms of the Revolutionary Guard - sea, land, air and the Quds Forces - to two political polarities: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have developed a deep and suspicious abhorrence for one another over the past few years.

At the height of their rift, Khamenei hinted that there are no constitutional obstacles to stop the state from having the next president selected by the parliament and not by popular vote. In any case, Ahmadinejad is due to complete his second term and will not be allowed to run for election again. But the public disagreements between the two men forced the Revolutionary Guards' elite to come forward and state with whom their loyalties lay.

This is not a new phenomenon. Internal conflict has characterized the Revolutionary Guard’s leadership from its inception. However, Khomeini’s charisma and intelligence and his loyal following have granted him a high-ranking position in the religious Shi’ite hierarchy of the Revolutionary Guard, and provided him with authority and legitimacy to eliminate his religious and political rivals. Khamenei lacks these qualities. He was not the preferred candidate to replace Khomeini and lacked the support of senior religious leaders necessary for a supreme religious leader. Before being appointed, he used to say that he opposes the Khomeini's regime, apparently because he did not think he would be appointed to such a high position.

In opposition to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was supported by the merchant classes and had the benefit of strong connections through his family, Khamenei is by nature a suspicious man that does not enjoy public or family support. He quickly established a parallel system of power with a representative in every military arm and government office, as well as ministers who are solely loyal to him and report to him directly, independently from the president. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was fired by Ahmadinejad, was one of these appointments, so was Defense Minister Vahidi, who also heads the project for the promotion of local military production, and Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi, who was fired by Ahmadinejad in 2011, but was later reinstated by Khamenei.

These representatives also serve as a network of communication and defense barring powerful forces such as the President, the Revolutionary Guard and rebel clerics from challenging Khamenei’s position. Alongside his representatives in government, the Revolutionary Guard and the army, Khamenei also holds a group of advisers in all fields by his side. One of the most prominent is Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser on foreign affairs, who in the past served as a foreign minister and senior diplomat. Velayati, who rarely speaks to the media, is apparently also Khamenei’s deputy responsible for covert activity abroad of the kind that Khamenei doesn't want to share information about with Ahmadinejad or Foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

Velayati doesn't work for free. His relationship with the supreme leader enabled him to purchase several Tehran hospitals, as is fitting for a man that studied to become a pediatrician at John Hopkins University. Another close friend is Mohsen Rafighdoost that serves as chairman of the Mustadafin (the Wretches), an organization founded to help the poor and families who lost loved ones during the Iraq-Iran War. He heads the Nur organization that erects thousands of housing units and is one of the major backers of Khamenei’s political machine.

The chief of staff of the Iranian army, Seyed Hassan Firuzabadi, is a close friend of the supreme leader from before the Islamic revolution. Firuzabadi is a vet by occupation and has no military training, except for his participation in the in Basij, a militia of volunteers, during the days of the revolution. The source of his vast wealth is unknown.

These are merely the most prominent of Khamenei’s advisors. Beside them is a complex network of family members holding high office, secondary religious leaders responsible for Khamenei’s relations with the important Shi'ite centers such as those in Qom and Isfahan, and advisors that labor to maintain good relations with Iran's many minorities.

This entire system is financed by a vast financial system that is mostly, like the army and the Revolutionary Guard, not subject to the oversight of the parliament. Part of the funds come from private "donors" and nefarious businesses, which are under the responsibility of Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, who is sometimes called "head of the mafia."

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, next to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to his left, NAM, summit, in Tehran, Iran, August 30, 2012.Credit: AP

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